SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

‘So many hurdles’: How Americans in Germany are fighting to renounce US citizenship

Facing increasingly tough tax rules while living abroad, an increasing number of US citizens are choosing to renounce their old passport and become German. But as one woman found out, getting rid of US citizenship isn't as simple as it sounds.

US Consulate General
The US Consulate General in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Boris Roessler

After living in Germany for more than 30 years, Alison*, a US citizen in her early 60s, decided it was finally time to become German.

Having grown increasingly disillusioned with American politics, she had been thinking about taking the plunge for at least a decade, but was concerned about giving up her US passport in case her elderly parents needed her support. 

After her parents passed away, she made the decision to submit her application for German citizenship, ticking a box to say she was happy to give up her US nationality and submitting proof of language skills, integration and residency in the country.

Then, just one more hurdle remained: booking an appointment at the US Consulate General in Frankfurt and renouncing her old citizenship. 

It was at this point that things started to become difficult. 

“I’ve completed all the requirements needed to get German citizenship and I have the official permission – but I can’t get an appointment,” she told The Local.

“There’s no telephone number that I’ve been able to find where I can make an appointment and when I go on the website, there’s no option to make an appointment to give up citizenship.”

The issue has brought Alison’s life to a standstill for several months, leaving her caught in a catch-22: Germany insists on her giving up her US citizenship, and America is making it impossible to do so. 

“This has been going for at least a year,” she explained, adding that she had been thinking about it for around a decade. 

“I’ve been pushing and pushing for various reasons, and I really want to get this finished but there are just so many blockades.”  

READ ALSO: ‘Two years is normal’: How Germany’s citizenship process leaves foreigners hanging

‘Not scheduling appointments’

The Local put in a call to Frankfurt’s Consulate General to ask about the possibility of booking appointments for the renunciation of citizenship.

We were forwarded on to the Citizenship Advice Service where an automated message stated that no citizenship advice was currently being given out over the phone. 

Having trawled through the website, a page with information on renouncing citizenship explained that, “in accordance with United States Department of State worldwide regulations in place due to Covid-19 and in line with efforts by the Government of Germany to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Consular Section of the US Consulate General in Frankfurt has temporarily restricted some routine consular processing.”

Consulate General Frankfurt

The American flag flies outside of the US Consulate General in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance / Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

“US Consulate General in Frankfurt is currently not scheduling citizenship renunciation appointments,” it added. 

The issue appears to date back to March 2020, when the US State Department ordered its embassies around the world to limit its services to citizens in those countries.

As Alison found out, a number of other services have since resumed – but renouncing citizenship isn’t one of them.

READ ALSO: How Americans in Europe are struggling to renounce US citizenship

The Local has requested information from the Frankfurt Consulate General on when this service will be resumed, given that most European nations – including Germany – have dropped almost all of their Covid-19 restrictions in recent months.

We have not yet received a response. 

‘Erosion of rights’ 

For many Americans – including Alison – the reasons for renouncing citizenship have grown in recent years. 

In 2010, the US government introduced a piece of legislation called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which forces foreign banks to pass on information about their American customers’ accounts to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

European financial institutions were given a deadline of 2020 to start complying with FATCA, and as this deadline approached, many Americans suddenly received letters telling them their bank accounts were being closed. 

Others, including Alison, started to face other restrictions on their financial activities – like a ban on the holding of stocks and shares. 

“I’ve found in the last five, six years, there’s been a real erosion of my rights here – not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole,” Alison said. “This is not due to the EU, it’s due to the American banking regulations, because no bank wants to give any sort of account to an American, because the IRS has threatened to sue any worldwide bank that gives an account to an American who may not pay taxes.”

Though Alison was permitted to keep her bank account of 30 years, she was told she had to sell the small amount of stocks that she’d been holding in Germany. 

ATM withdrawal

A woman withdraws cash from an ATM. Over the past few years, Americans have had difficulties accessing financial services in Europe. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Benjamin Nolte

Then she was told she couldn’t have power of attorney over her husband’s or children’s assets. 

“It’s absurd,” she said. “And in fact, I earn zero. I retired early because my husband and I agreed we wanted to travel after he retired.”

READ ALSO: Why are Americans being turned away from German banks?

Her children, who have joint US and German citizenship, have also faced financial issues due to FATCA. 

When her son starting studying at the prestigious Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, he went from bank to bank attempting to set up a new account.

“He got rejected over and over,” Alison said. “They just absolutely refused to give him an account even though he was a student earning nothing.”

Both her son and her daughter were also required to sell their stocks in a German bank, which they invested after receiving a small inheritance from their grandmother. 

They are now both considering renouncing their US citizenship.

Caught between laws

The de facto block on giving up American citizenship has impacted people across the world, keeping them trapped with a passport (and inside of a tax system) that they no longer want to be associated with.

In Germany, the issue is even more pressing, since delays in giving up citizenship also mean delays in the naturalisation process.

Though the new traffic-light coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has promised to overturn the ban on dual nationality sometime within the next four years, Alison’s situation is too urgent to wait that long.

READ ALSO: What’s the latest on Germany’s plan to change dual citizenship laws?

Her husband is now in his 70s and wants her to have power of attorney so that she’s able to access his finances if anything happens to him. 

“He’s been a major force in pushing me to do this,” he said. “As you get older, you don’t want to be left in a situation when someone is ill and needs care and you don’t have the money to pay for it.”

The only way to do this is for her to give up US citizenship and become German, but at the moment she’s caught between America’s strict financial laws and German’s strict citizenship laws.

There are some loopholes for getting dual nationality for people who, for example, are from countries that don’t allow them to give up their citizenship. But it’s unclear if this would imply in Alison’s case and she says it would cost too much to hire a lawyer and “buy her way in”.

German passport

A German passport. Germany’s citizenship laws have compounded the problem for Americans like Alison. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

“That’s a little bit unfair because isn’t the US, by not giving me an appointment, taking away my right to give up my citizenship?”, she said. 

According to the latest data from the Federal Office of Statistics, around 800 and 1,000 people annually from North America (Canada and the US) have generally opted to take German citizenship each year. 

In the first three months of 2020 alone, 990 US citizens chose to become German. Though it’s not clear how many of these gave up their US citizenship, the seeming rise in the numbers could be due to the difficulties posed by FATCA. 

This would fit with the estimates of an international tax advisor in Poland who was quoted by several media outlets on the issue.

He believes that around 30,000 applications would have been submitted to renounce US citizenship since March 2020 if the embassies had been accepting applications. If this is true, the backlog will be getting longer by the day.

Two years since the pandemic arrived in Europe, life has mostly returned to normal – but for Americans wanting to give up their citizenship, there’s nothing to do but wait. 

Are you an American in Germany with similar worries? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

* Names were changed to protect the interviewee’s privacy. 

Member comments

  1. Has Alison considered going to a consulate in another country to renounce? Some US consulates allow non-residents to book appointments.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

Germany's new coalition government is planning major reforms of the country's citizenship policies. The Local spoke to the FDP's immigration policy expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch about when - and how - people can expect the rules to change.

INTERVIEW: 'Changing German citizenship laws is a priority'

For several years – if not decades – citizenship has been an area in Germany politics where very little has been allowed to change.

Though the Social Democrats (SPD) governed for years as the junior coalition partner of the conservative CDU and CSU parties, they were generally blocked at every turn when trying to offer more routes to citizenship. 

Instead, the country kept strict rules banning dual nationality in place, and has continued to have long residency and strict language requirements in place. As a result, Germany has had some of the lowest levels of naturalisation in the EU, with people waiting an average of 17 years before they apply for citizenship.  

This all changed when the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) formed their ‘traffic light’ coalition.   

“Even before the elections took place, we all thought citizenship should be reformed, so there was no major discord between the coalition partners on this issue,” FDP migration policy expert Dr. Ann-Verushka Jurisch told The Local.

“Migration in general was an easy topic because we all think we are an immigration society.”

This, as Jurisch points out, is in stark contrast to the CDU/CSU parties, who have for a long time been reluctant to give immigrations an easier path to becoming German. 

“They think we have a more mainstream German culture,” she said. “Whereas we think we are an open society who should be open to everybody who wants to be part of the project we call Germany.”

That’s why, when the 144-page coalition agreement was released in November, it revealed that a major overhaul of the status quo was coming.

READ ALSO: In limbo: Why Germany’s reform of dual citizenship laws can’t come soon enough

FDP MP and migration expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch

FDP MP and migration expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch. Photo: Laurence Chaperon

In a key passage that caught the attention of internationals in Germany, the new coalition pledged to create a “modern citizenship law” that would permit allowing the holding of multiple citizenships and “simplify the route to obtaining German citizenship”.

It also pledged to reduce the years of residence needed for citizenship from eight years to five – or three for people who are “exceptionally integrated”. 

Another, slightly more cryptic passage, declared that the current requirement of proving “integration into German living conditions” would be replaced with “clearer criteria” – though Jurisch was unclear about whether this would amount to a major change in the documentation migrants require to naturalise in Germany. 

“I must be quite honest, I do not know if there are really big shifts or changes planned,” she said. “I think, of course, citizenship must be bound to some criteria – but there is a general sense between the coalition partners that we shouldn’t give immigrants too much of a tough time.” 

One thing is clear: the current integration courses and language requirements will remain in place for most people. 

“Language and integration courses will certainly still be part of the game because I think it’s important to communicate certain things about Germany and to me, it makes sense,” Jurisch explained.

But the question is whether the integration courses and the language requirements are there as an obstacle or there as a door that people want to go through? For the coalition it’s more about creating a door rather than an obstacle, and I think that’s one of the major policy shifts that is going to take place.”

Law to change ‘by 2023’ 

Around 14 percent of the population – 11.8 million people – currently live in Germany on a foreign passport.

A proportion of these are EU citizens, who are able to keep their existing passport when they become German, but a large number are from non-EU countries and face the prospect of renouncing their existing citizenship if they want to naturalise.

When The Local conducted a survey on the changing rules back in January, 90 percent of respondents said they wanted to apply for German citizenship – with 78 percent saying they were holding off until the rules were changed.

New Germans sit holding their declaration of allegiance to Germany

New Germans sit holding their declaration of allegiance to Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

So, when exactly will all these modernisations of Germany’s nationality law take place? 

“At the moment, negotiations are taking place between the coalition partners because every coalition partner has their own prioritised projects,” Jurish revealed.

Changing the citizenship law is a prioritised project of the Social Democrats (SPD) and as it happens, the Interior Minister is also from this party. So it’s very likely that the timeline that the minister has suggested – which indicates that it’ll be done at the end of this year – will actually happen.”

When The Local spoke to the Interior Ministry back in April, they were less optimistic about the deadline, with a spokesperson playing down expectations that the new laws would come into force in 2022.

But it appears that the ball is already rolling and that the beginning of 2023 could be a realistic timeframe.

“This is one of the very prioritised projects of the SPD,” Jurisch reiterated. “I think it’s a very valid, important issue, and one that matters to all three partners.”

Lowering the threshold

Despite the urgent appetite for reform within the coalition, there are a number of smaller details that need to be worked out before a new law can be drafted.

In particular, the FDP is keen to ensure that people don’t end up accruing multiple passports over multiple generations.

That means, for example, that first-generation migrants and their children would have a claim to dual nationality, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely still be asked to choose between German nationality and that of their grandparents.

Another task facing the Interior Ministry is to introduce a “hardship clause” that would exempt certain people from the current B1 language requirement in the citizenship application. 

“The starting point is our commitment to the very fact that we are an immigrant society with all its positive implications,” said Jurisch. “And this also means embracing the guest worker community, some of whom maybe came to our country decades ago and still have problems, for example, with the language. And this is an obstacle to becoming a German citizen.

Citizenship test Germany

An applicant for German citizenship takes the citizenship test in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

READ ALSO: Reader question: When will Germany change its citizenship laws?

“We would like to lower the threshold for those people because I think it’s kind of unjust to say, you’ve been here for 30 years but don’t speak the language, so sorry, we don’t want you.”

A run on passports

Another key issue is that, even at current levels of demand, it can take months or even years for Citizenship Offices to process applications.

This is in part due to the size of the respective migrant communities in different areas, and in part due to the fact that Germany is – in Jurisch’s words – “lagging behind” on digitalisation. 

When the doors finally open up to millions more people at the end of the year or start of next, there could be some very long queues. 

“I’m very sorry to say that a lot of things have been left undone over the past 16 years, especially within the field of digitalisation and in terms of accelerating administrative processes,” Jurisch said. “I think it’s a really bad thing because there will be a run (on citizenship), and processes will be slow.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How I got German citizenship – and how you can too

Since digitalisation projects tend to take several months or even years, Jurisch believes it’s unlikely that much progress will have been made on modernising the citizenship application process by the time the laws are changed. 

“So I think it will be a little bit messy,” she added. 

A newly naturalised German citizen holds his certificate of naturalisation

A newly naturalised German citizen holds his certificate of naturalisation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

When it comes to the day-to-day issues like the staffing and management of the Citizenship Offices (Einbürgerungsbehörden), these are further out of the federal government’s control, as they tend to be run by the municipalities. 

“But this is something we’ll have to take into account when changing the law,” Jurisch said. 

Despite the potential waiting times, many migrants are simply happy to see a shift under the traffic-coalition from policies that have made many feel shut-out of German society to policies that have made them feel more welcome – and more seen.

“It’s a major shift in policy, to try to say we are an immigrant society,” Jurisch said. “And to say that we must make sure that people can become German citizens more easily if they want to.” 

SHOW COMMENTS